Anchoring the Saturday night program at the 17th Annual DC Independent Film Festival is the U.S. premiere of the Dutch feature “Littekens,” the debut feature of Martin Beek (co-directing and co-editing with Patrick Huiberts). It’s an unnerving film—a dark tale of a young, fun-loving blonde, pig-tailed girl being raised by an alcoholic, chain-smoking, pregnant, and quite uncaring mother (Chantal Demming). As stereotypes go, mom’s a wicked witch-bitch—one apparently burdened by a deep, dark secret that lays buried under a layer of booze and cocaine. The one truth her daughter would like to hear is who her eternally absent father really is.
As the young girl tries to get more details on her paternal side from her supportive maternal grandfather (a very impressive Fred van Kaam), for a while he’d rather avoid the issue as well and instead provide her bursts of fast food frivolity, while offering infrequent sleepovers to shuffle off the toxic situation with her mom. To Susan (in three agings—an 8-year-old played by Sam Matheeuwsen, and 14- and 18-year olds played by sisters Wendela and Tamara van Sprundel), this search becomes an obsession, filling a diary with confessions to a candy-coated “papa,” whom she daydreams about in golden, light-streaked, snowflaky moments filled with carnival-themed music.
The film hits it stride when the “adult” Susie arrives in 2011 (10 years older than when she appeared in the opening shot and 25 minutes in screen time), and the first hint of a “gotcha” moment (regarding her quest) floats to her ears in exhausting, tear-streaked closeups. Mom thinks the story’s all wrong. And then the rocky road trip begins (with too many slow dissolves in the editing) toward a bleak German landscape. Oh dad, poor dad. You’re gonna take this film to a whole other destination!
I don’t think I’ve told you Beek’s screenplay is based on true events, two now fictionalized stories, including the story of his own foster child Ramona, adopted at 12, with an unstable mother and that desire to find genealogical bearings on her paternal line. The other tale, which encompasses the second half of the feature, is more depressing and horrifying. I could tell you the basics (it is grabbed-from-the-headlines material), but “Littekens” will be more enjoyable, even if it’s a dark pleasure, not knowing what happens. Suffice to say that Beek projects, in the first hour, snippets of the terror that will unfold, with brief shots of a man with short-cropped hair plotting something dastardly.
The 50+ year-old director has had the film bug ever since a teenager, and spent much of his 20s working as a camera assistant in the British film industry. He’s a pioneer in the area of computer-controlled camera effects, and also shot hours of 16mm footage and took thousands of photographs at Auschwitz while researching “Schindler’s List” for Steven Spielberg, and I think that has influenced some of the old school look here in his first feature.
Beek keeps the mood pessimistic during the opening hour, then turns it sharply into outright gloom during the second oppressively claustrophobic section—the puzzle takes a while to figure out. The squalid, dank room that becomes Susan’s home (shared with two other young women played by Jamie Kooij and Kimberely Dekker) is not a sweet one. The ending is somewhat upbeat, and I’m not happy with the excessive dialogue that too conveniently explains away motivations and consequences in the final moments. “Littekins” fits unevenly into an edgy, ever-darkening genre of human horror thrillers, part “Seven” and “Gone Girl,” even if it’s wrapped around a low-budget story. It’s a film you won’t soon forget.